Ukrainian Canadians have for some time called for the Canadian government to step up its military aid to Ukraine which is fighting the Russian invasion. In all fairness, these requests have happened on the background of an unprecedented effort – Canada has provided $578 million to Ukraine in the form of financial, military and other aid, and low-interest loans, in little more than a year. Now, the government is fulfilling one of the braver hopes of our community – it is committing up to 250 Canadian military personnel on the ground in Ukraine, for a two-year training mission. In his interview, which we took in the New Pathway office, the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, The Honourable Peter Van Loan, told us exactly what so many Ukrainian Canadians have wanted to hear: “we are prepared to go farther.”
NP: What is your assessment of the government’s plan to station between 150-250 military trainers in Ukraine?
PVL: Of course it’s a very difficult challenge because unfortunately Ukraine is not part of NATO and Article 5 NATO commitments do not apply here. And obviously a step like this is viewed in a very hostile fashion by Russia, but the position we have taken for quite some time is that no country should have a veto over others countries’ choices of alliances. And we consider the effort of the Ukrainian people to defend their country to be one that we support.
And as such it was a very significant step to take the decision to have the Canadian military on the ground in a training role in Ukraine. All the evidence so far has been that if Putin is of the view that he can continue to take further steps without encountering resistance, he will take those steps. That’s why it’s so important here and in the Baltics, Poland and elsewhere that the West speaks with clear resolve and willingness to take the necessary steps if Putin’s aggression does not stop.
NP: There is some criticism that the government did not bring this decision to a parliamentary vote. What do you think about that?
PVL: Our position has been clear: in law, any commitments of a military nature and foreign policy decisions have been the exclusive purview of the executive. But our government has taken two additional steps with regard to foreign affairs. One is to say that all treaties of significant nature will be subject to a vote in Parliament prior to ratification, and, second, any combat military missions will be put to a vote of Parliament. It wasn’t done by any government before. Training, non-combat missions we do all the time, and it would be highly unusual to present them to votes in parliament. That being said, if the opposition wants to have a debate on it, I know the NDP have certainly said there should be a debate on it, every week there is an opposition day and they can choose this subject for debate.
NP: NDP’s foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said on CBC with regards to the government’s decision that “we need to change the tone”, “we shouldn’t take the bait”. What do you think about the NDP’s position in this case?
PVL: I don’t want to make it into a partisan issue, but I think the NDP’s position is very different than ours. You can go right back to the start of this matter when Paul Dewar himself said that our involvement in supporting the Euromaidan revolution was bad because it was taking sides. Well, yeah, we are taking sides, we’ve always taken sides of freedom and democracy. And we think that old ways of saying that Canada is always hands-off and that we can’t take sides are gone, sometimes there is a clear right and clear wrong.
It’s certainly the case in the case of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, I don’t think there is room for moral ambiguity here. It’s not a question of “taking the bait”. I don’t think Russia is trying to bait us into responding, I think Putin would be very happy if he encountered no resistance and would just keep going forward which is what I am quite sure would happen.
NP: Why are there concerns about threats to the Canadian forces on the ground in Ukraine which will be stationed very far from the front lines?
PVL: For some in the opposition, their view has generally been that the military is a fine thing as long as you never actually use it. As we know, any military deployment of any type, anywhere, involves risks. In our mission right now to support the Kurdish Peshmerga (military forces – NP) in combating ISIS, we’ve had a casualty there already. It was due to friendly fire, not on the front lines, but that’s because by nature in these environments there are always inherent risks, people die in training accidents right here, in Canada.
There are people who think we shouldn’t undertake any of these risks, but I certainly know that the people in our armed forces sign up for these dangerous jobs because they believe in the importance of service, the causes and the values that Canada stands for, and they have always been supportive of the engagements including the mission against ISIS and now the planned mission in Ukraine.
NP: The opposition has also said that this is a unilateral mission, not within NATO, but the government has stressed that it’s together with the US and British allies.
PVL: It is together with some allies, but I think it’s important to understand when someone says that we only have a commitment to those who are within NATO, they are very much leaving Ukraine vulnerable because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. And if they are saying that our commitment should be to work in concert as part of NATO, that is going to leave Ukraine very exposed. That’s obviously not our view.
NP: In terms of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, would Canada need a NATO decision to do that?
PVL: I am not sure that is exactly our position. We have so far focused on non-lethal supplies. If there is a decision to provide weapons, what Canada could do on its own would be fairly limited and we would certainly look for, if not a consensus, a broader effort.
We will not insist on acting in concert with NATO, we are quite prepared to go it alone, we are prepared to go farther. But we certainly want to be leaders in bringing as many of our allies with us as possible. Because at the end of the day, it is the unity of our alliance that is critical to standing up to any threat. But that being said, we are not going to use it as an excuse that not every NATO ally is doing the same thing as we are. I am very proud of the fact that Canada has, certainly on a per capita basis, done more than any other country, including the United States and Britain, in terms of military commitment and other commitments, to support Ukraine. I think it’s an appropriate role for Canada to show that leadership.
NP: What is you assessment of the current situation in terms of the war? Many people had thought that Putin would strike after the old-calendar Easter which was last Sunday, and before the May 9 Victory Day, but he has not yet done so. Why has Russia stopped?
PVL: First, I’d reject the notion that Russia has stopped. I think there is no urgency on Putin’s part, I don’t know if there is any reason why he has to proceed with any particular action at a particular time. Speaking, for example, to the Estonian community here in Canada, back at the time of the Sochi Olympics, I was very concerned, because I saw the writing on the wall that we almost certainly were going to see a Russian aggression rolled out at the end of the games after the eyes of the world turned away, and there was enough ground work being laid at that time. Unfortunately, it proved to be correct.
Putin’s domestic ends are being served by how the conflict is unfolding, consolidating what he holds is in his interests and allowing Western attention to fade and urgency to decline is also in his interests. Just because there may be the occasional ceasefire, there is evidence shown to us that that is in no way an end to his adventurism. It’s simply taking a breath and seeking a new opportunity. For the West, it’s the greatest risk that the attention span of the public is driven by what is in the news. And Putin understands full well that if he can allow the sense of urge of public in the West to go away, the occupation of Crimea and the part of Eastern Ukraine would become a status quo.
NP: Do you think that the attention in the West is fading away from this war?
PVL: The best that’s happened for Putin in recent times was the rise of ISIS. For countries like Canada, which are committing there, among the public there is certainly commitment to do our share, but there is also a limited appetite to fight on every front there is. And if one conflict is dominating the news, the other begins to seem like less of a threat. That is something that Putin plays very well. The efforts that the Russian government has made in public relations and media are very significant. We don’t see it as much here because not many people spend a lot of time watching RT. But certainly in areas where you have large Russian-speaking populations, like in the Baltics and Ukraine, that’s a real factor.
NP: So, can we make a conclusion that Canada is assuming a more proactive foreign policy?
PVL: There is no doubt there is another school of thought which is some would call a traditional Canadian role. I reject the idea that it’s a traditional Canadian role, but it was maybe in the 70-80’s, and that is that Canada’s posture in the world should be as peacekeepers, should be “going along to get along”. Of course, history tells us something very different. Canada’s role has been to send hundreds of thousands of people overseas, lose over a hundred thousand in two world wars fighting to protect the freedoms, democracy and the values that we believe in, for people that we’d never met before. Because the world looked to us to do a significant part of preservation of those values. We are one of the few countries that have an unambiguously morally backed policy for what we do.
That’s why Canada is so indispensable to the world. We are not indispensable to the world because we are willing to say that in any conflict the truth is halfway between the two sides. That has not been the Canadian way. Certainly, under the conservative government, we will continue to have a very strong position about the war in Ukraine. Am I confident that would survive a change in government? Certainly, not. We see lots of evidence we might see right kind of rhetoric from others, but not the kind of commitment, the willingness to back those values, those actions like military training. That’s why the things like that are a controversy still.
NP: But with the latest Mr. Trudeau’s announcement that he would not form a coalition with NDP, you are running a lesser chance to lose the elections.
PVL: That of course the day after he said that he would. And that’s the problem with Mr. Trudeau’s position on many of these things. He said for example he supported the deployment of troops for training, yet, never did he call for that. And I think that’s the real tell on where his policies are. Would he ever undertake an initiative like that? If he hadn’t called for it, I am quite sure he would not have undertaken such a step.
NP: You said that Putin’s threat is material for Poland and the Baltic states. People often don’t want to believe in the worst scenario, but we didn’t want to believe that he would annex Crimea.
PVL: I think there is a big lesson in this which is unfortunately that the success of Putin’s approach in Transnistria, in Georgia, now in Ukraine, where he succeeded in what he wants, which is a frozen conflict, he is emboldened by the lack of Western response and looking at more.
And domestically we have to see a kind of coherent government response in Ukraine, instead of what we saw in the wake of the Orange Revolution when the promise was lost.
NP: Are we seeing a coherent government response in Ukraine?
PVL: I don’t know. But this is where, again, the Russian propaganda has been so brilliant. They have been very effective in undermining President Poroshenko particularly through this last ceasefire, through the Debaltseve episode, to saw seeds of dissension within Ukraine. The play that game well.
Time is on Putin’s side unfortunately. The Russian economy is vulnerable, but that’s the Russian economy for 2% of the population. As you know from history, the capacity of the Russian people for suffering hardship is greater than for any other people in Europe, perhaps even greater than that of Ukrainians. The sanctions have an impact, but we should not be naive about the capacity to endure them.